Home » Sweat the small stuff, for a high performance bowling  green this year

Sweat the small stuff, for a high performance bowling  green this year

If your green maintenance budget was cut in half this year what would you do?

Most clubs when faced with cuts to the greenkeeping budget, will try at all costs to keep the most important work in the plan. Unfortunately, important frequently gets confused with dramatic, which means that the big expense of top-dressing in the spring and autumn usually stays in the plan and I wish it didn’t for all the reasons I’ve explained over many articles.

Meantime, the work deemed less important and which of course is less dramatic is often sidelined or dropped as a result of a fear of what might go wrong if the big, sexy stuff is missed. These big jobs “must be doing a lot of good”, or so the thinking goes, because they’re so expensive and disruptive?

In my experience, it’s better to turn this thinking on its head and do the opposite and here’s why:

Green Levels

Top-dressing is regularly offered up as the panacea for all ills, and in particular as the answer to poor green levels. When a bad run, hollow or bump appears, the immediate reaction is that more top-dressing is required in order to level the green out.

Fact number 1: 3 Tonnes of a typical top-dressing over an average sized bowling green will add 1mm of material to the surface. That’s the height of 2 medium sand particles. 

Fact number 2: 25mm (common) of thatch build up can easily result in surface anomalies (footprints, depressions from machinery, natural settlement and shrinkage) of 10mm or greater. Top dressing can’t compete with that.

The answer to green level problems is to deal with thatch. In most cases this means physically reducing it at first and then adjusting your maintenance program to encourage the natural degradation and recycling of thatch.

Green Speed

Top-dressing is frequently credited with the ability to increase green speed. If the green is very sandy, it will drain more quickly, making the surface drier and therefore faster, or so the story goes, but this is just wrong.

It’s true that the fine fescue and bent grasses thrive naturally in impoverished, free draining soils, but they are still soils. On very many UK greens the top 100mm is nothing but sand and excessive thatch.

Good drainage and a firm surface are facilitated by a very particular soil physical composition, but once this is in place, continually adding more sand isn’t necessary or even helpful. In fact the continual addition of sand to greens has made many of them inert and lifeless with no natural ability to recycle thatch into soil nutrients. It’s a bit like knowing that 2 Paracetamols will get rid of a headache, but swallowing the whole packet just to make sure…very bad idea.

Fact number 3: On an average sized bowling green an annual top-dressing of 3 tonnes, over the last 40 years will have resulted in the addition of sand equalling around half the original soil volume of the green. Somewhere under there is the original green.

If this was making greens perform better year on year, I’d be all for it, but it isn’t in most cases.

Fact number 4: This is making greens excessively sandy, much more sandy than the physical ideal our fine grasses thrive in. Thatch is building up faster because the soil is inert, with a low microbe population. Soil microbes recycle thatch into plant available nutrition, which cuts fertiliser bills.

Fact number 5: Greens like this are dominated by annual meadow grass, which is shallow rooting, clumpy and coarse leafed. It doesn’t produce a good bowling surface.

The combination of excessive thatch and annual meadow-grass saps the energy from your shot. The green is heavy and slow a lot of the time.

When a green like this dries out in summer, it will be hard and bumpy instead of firm and smooth.

Green Smoothness and Trueness

Along with green speed, the relative smoothness and trueness of the green surface are the factors that dictate green performance.

Surface smoothness measures how much vertical deviation (bobbling) a wood encounters when travelling up the rink. This is affected by how much “give” there is in the surface. There’s a lot of give in excessive thatch.

Surface Trueness measures how much horizontal deviation (snaking) the wood encounters on its travels. This is affected not only by dips and hollows, but also by patchy growth, meadowgrass seed head production and old disease scars, which have now apparently grown over.

Green Puddling and Flooding (the poor drainage myth)

I’m often asked to comment on the drainage improvements required on greens that frequently puddle and flood in summer time.

More than 8 out of 10 of these cats, don’t have drainage problems, they have thatch problems. All of the excess water is being held up at the surface. Excessive thatch acts like a sponge. On greens where Localised Dry Patch has taken hold this can be quite dramatic. I’ve seen an entire green standing in water only to take a soil  sample out that is powder dry.

Concentrate on the Small Stuff this year

These common problems on greens are brought about by an overall agronomic situation I have labelled the Circle of Decline, as explained in an earlier article and in-depth on bowls central.

The requirements for breaking your green out of the Circle of Decline are the same as those for creating high performance bowling greens, so you get two for the price of one here.

Here’s my suggested plan for turning your green around this year:

Think about Soil Microbes

I can lose readers and friends fast when I start banging on about soil microbes, so bear with me here…soil microbes are the answer to a lot of life’s problems, especially if you’re a greenkeeper.

Conventional greenkeeping (fungicides, high salt mineral fertilisers and sand) has decimated the micro-life in many bowling greens. Microbes (Fungi, Bacteria, Nematodes, Protozoa etc) are abundant in healthy soil. In healthy soil, excessive thatch doesn’t build up! Instead it is recycled by these soil microbes at the same rate it is produced, not just recycled, but turned into plant available nutrients. This is how grass got to be so successful the world over for millions of years before humans even existed.

What can you do about encouraging microbes? 

The beneficial soil microbes are aerobic organisms, so making sure your green is well oxygenated is a good starting point. 

Aeration; including thatch reduction (hollow tining and scarifying) where it is excessive, de-compaction via deep slit tining in winter and pencil tining/sarrell rolling in summer to keep the surface aerated.

BioStimulants; adding carbohydrates to the soil will stimulate microbe activity when conditions are far from ideal. Liquid Seaweed and Molasses based products are great for this.

Compost Tea; old fashioned, but remarkably beneficial, especially as a regular, cheap top up of soil microbes and as a means of encouraging greater microbial activity in the soil. And you get the fun of brewing it yourself!

Reduce Fungicide Use; If your green is thatchy and susceptible to disease, all of the above will have a dramatic and cumulative effect on its health, but you will almost certainly still suffer fusarium outbreaks meantime. The longer term aim is to stop using fungicides, but in the transition period try to use spot curative treatments and avoid blanket spraying your green with preventative fungicides.

When can I start?

“That’s the Green Put to Bed”, is possibly my least favourite statement after “it’s your round isn’t it?”.

Greenkeeping is a 12 month a year exercise, or it certainly should be, so there is no time like the present to get started on this. 

What can be done in February?

Deep slit tining can go on unabated throughout the winter period. Each operation compounds the benefits of the one before and twice a month is certainly not too often, frost and excessively wet conditions excepted.

Compost Tea can be applied every month of the year with no exceptions. If you can get the sprayer on the green (not in frost or flood) you should make a brew. Making and adding compost tea to your green has the dual effect of replacing missing microbes and boosting the existing ones. Over time, conventional maintenance can cause important microbe groups to be low or missing. Compost tea deals with this in a natural way.

Liquid Seaweed, can be applied now. It is stuffed with carbohydrate to help boost soil microbes, important trace elements like copper and zinc to boost plant hardiness and can be tank mixed with your compost tea to save work.

Further reading on natural greenkeeping:



  1. Mike_penketh_bowling says:

    Hi John. Have you made a secret visit to our club green?
    Your latest article, sadly, accurately describes my situation. Even after four years of really hard work treading the performance green path I’m still struggling with dry patch in many areas of the green. When I volunteered to look after the green some five years ago, we were still being advised to top dress by our supplier!
    Some areas of the green have responded well to intensive work with AquaCept, Compost Tea, Incision and Liquid Aeration. Last season got off to a good start and our green was playing well when others around us were suffering. However, as the summer went on, we saw signs of stress and areas of dry patch appearing in other parts of the green, some quite extensive.
    When we sampled in preparation for the autumn renovation, we saw that a massive amount of thatch had amassed in a surprisingly short time amongst a bone-dry root zone dominated by top dressing sand. It was so bad that I decided to get some volunteers in to physically remove the thatch and some of the top dressing. The larger areas were rotovated and other, smaller patches, dug over to incorporate the sand into the hard packed soil and create more of a loamy structure overall prior to seeding in October.
    The green has over-wintered well and seeding has been reasonably successful. We just need a light overseed to increase the sward density.
    The big shock came last week when I decided to do a ‘small’ re-landscaping job along one side of the green – an area 6mtr x 1mtr. The plan was to cut and lift the turf, reshape the soil to slope it down to the gulley, and then relay the turf.
    As soon as I started it was clear there was a problem when the spade slid in under the turf without effort, like digging on a beach. Populated with shallow rooted annual grass there was no root system to bind the turf and it just broke up. The top 40-50mm of the root zone was all top dressing sand, with a narrow compressed strata underneath, on top of a light clay subsoil. With the start of the season only six weeks away I’ve had to dig over the patch and take a trip to Lincolnshire to pick up some amenity turf which I laid yesterday.
    We already do a significant amount of aeration and verti-cutting, but we may have to find other ways of physically removing thatch and sand, and get some life into the rootzone, while minimising disturbance to the playing surface.
    With increasing prices and a tight budget, a lot of thought will have to go into our spring/summer plan.
    As always, thank you for your insight and support.

  2. Rob Moores says:

    Hello John,

    The green needs verticutting. The problem is the weather. In the last fortnight there has only been a one day break between rain. What is the shortest period after rain when we can then verticut please

    Thank you,
    Grange Bowls Club

    • John says:

      Hi Rob

      It’s fine to verti-cut when you are getting regular rain. It’s more important to be cautious in dry weather with this.



    • John says:

      Hi Frank

      There’s no similar alternative, but you might be able to get a reel that fits your mower depending on the machine you have or maybe a used machine?



  3. robert black says:

    Hi john.
    Just with regards top dressing and as our club which i have only been a member 3years have always put 6 ton on every year as contractor has said they need but i have said but why and they could not tell me the answer so now iam on the committee i said enough is enough so last year they did not do this and greens is same as years before it plays well very level drains very well so when do you say we need top dressing as i have said we dnot need any again this year just a good scarifie and slitting and winter fertiliser and good general maintenance .what would you reckon mend .
    Cheers Bob.

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